More than two decades ago, members of Sewickley’s black community came together to create a local celebration of African-American art.
At the time, the Pittsburgh area had many ethnic festivals, yet nothing that focused on African-American culture, recalled Elizabeth Asche Douglas, a local jazz musician and former professor at Geneva College in Beaver Falls.
Recognizing that the region already had a host of events lined up for Black History Month each year, Douglas and other community members decided to hold their festival in the fall, at Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley. They called it MAVUNO, after the Swahili word for harvest.
Although past festivals have focused heavily on music, this year’s 22nd MAVUNO Festival also features a dance class, poetry workshop, a lecture on systemic racism and an exhibition of historic photographs sourced from the Sewickley Valley Historical Society, according to Alexandra Watrous, artistic coordinator at Sweetwater Center for the Arts.
The photographs “offer a view into the history of the African-American experience in Sewickley and the surrounding area,” Watrous said.
“Focusing on a historical theme with the exhibition this year is a new concept,” she said.
The photography exhibition lasts from Sept. 22 through Oct. 20. The entire festival takes place at Sweetwater Center for the Arts, which has forged partnerships with other community organizations and individuals to produce a month’s worth of activities and events.
According to Watrous, Welcoming Everyone, a community group dedicated to uniting people of diverse backgrounds, will team up with Sweetwater to host a lecture on systemic racism delivered by Professor Idris Kabir Syed of Kent State University.
In his Oct. 13 lecture, Syed, a ceramic artist himself, plans to focus on the intersectionality of history and contemporary art.
“What the lecture will do is look at some of the historical aspects of systemic racism,” Syed said. “It’s really focusing on modern African-American and African artists and their interpretation of that systemic racism in their work.”
In addition to Syed’s lecture, Sweetwater is hosting a MAVUNO Gospel Brunch on Sept. 29. Watrous noted the brunch received plenty of positive feedback last year.
Other events include a soul line dancing workshop on Oct. 20, an African dance class each Tuesday from Sept. 11 through Oct. 16 and a poetry writing workshop every Saturday from Oct. 6 through 20.
Bonita Penn, the instructor of the writing workshop, will teach the ekphrastic method of poetry. She wants participants to bring a photograph depicting a family moment they shared in the greater Sewickley area.
“Using that photo, they will write a poem or a really short prose piece to share their history as part of the larger history of Sewickley,” Penn said.
Since its founding, MAVUNO has fulfilled a vision that has grown to encompass many aspects of African-American cultural expression, Douglas described in an email.
This year’s festival will attract a diverse audience, as it has in past years, Watrous said.
“We have something for everyone this year, the dancer, the writer, the music-lover, the student of life and culture and the history buff,” Watrous said. “My hope is that the MAVUNO Festival is a chance for Sewickley’s community to come together to embrace and celebrate diversity, to start conversations about cultural experiences within our greater culture, and to experience great art from our region.
Sam Bojarski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.